14 Lessons on How Racism Works: The Story of a Black Mother who had The Department of Children and Family Services Contacted because she was 7 minutes late for Pick Up from School.
On Tuesday March 2nd, one day after Chicago Public Schools implemented hybrid learning for it’s elementary school students, an African American mother who happens to also be a Chicago Public School teacher had the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) called because she arrived to pick up her son from school 7 minutes past the 30 minute grace period that was normally allowed. According to the details from the news article, tweets to the mayor and the petition from the Local School Council on behalf of the mother, the child of this mother usually takes the bus home from school. However, there was a miscommunication about the bus service on this day and so the mother found out late that she would need to arrange for pick up.
Subsequently, this mother tried to find someone who could pick up her son but as no one was available, she left her home as soon as she possibly could to pick up him up from school. Living in Chicago, on a good day without traffic this is a 30 minute commute. On a day with traffic, this could have easily been an hour commute. On the way to the school, as the mother knew she was running late, according to her reports, she tried to call the school several times and could not reach anyone. In addition, the school did not call her or any of her emergency contacts when she did not arrive in time.
Nevertheless, the mother arrived at 4:37, picked up her son and went home. The next day however, the mother reports that she received a threatening email from the principal about calling The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services for neglect. The mother understandably perturbed by such an email, responded to the principal with her own email of strong words, an email which apparently then prompted the principal to follow through on the threat to call DCFS.
Of recent, we talk about being anti-racist, and to be honest it’s very trendy. However, I see us as a society continuously only being reactive but never proactive about racism. In essence, we seldom examine and deconstruct the underlying systems and structures that enable and perpetuate the reoccurrence of racist incidents such as these. The reality is, if are unable to take a closer look at what is truly at play in each of these situations, things will never change and we will never move forward as a society on issues of racism.
I first encountered this story when someone posted it to my diverse moms group that’s based on the South side of Chicago. We then began to have a discussion in the group about this story. Based on those discussions, and the details I have learned about this story, I decided to write these 14 lessons on how racism works.
1) Racism results in inequitable educational systems that then compel black and brown mothers to do whatever it takes to ensure their kids get the best education possible. The kid in this story is attending a magnet school far away. This mother had to drive from Hyde Park to Lakeview which without traffic is at least 30 minutes and in the middle of rush hour which is more like an hour’s drive. Why is this? This is because our inequitable, educational system has dictated that black and brown mothers especially, who want to give their kids access to the best education possible will very often have to drive out of their neighborhoods, to often predominantly white neighborhoods so their kids can obtain such an education. If you know Chicago, you may say well Hyde Park isn’t poor, and that is true but it’s also true that very few parents turn down enrolling their kid at a selective enrollment school because of the education and possibilities it can provide. Black and brown mothers know that for their kids to have a chance in this world, that they need to do whatever it takes to give their kids access to the best education possible. However, in our society, such efforts are notably often criticized and can even be criminalized.
2) Racism means that black and brown families are often looked upon negatively by school administrations, teachers and neighborhoods when they send their children to schools outside of their own neighborhood. It’s the version of “you don’t belong here and you need to stay in your neighborhood” that takes place. What I have noticed is that school officials, as well as community members will pass judgment, stereotype and often other such families. I witnessed this in 2015 when the alderman in my far Southside Chicago neighborhood attempted to close down my son’s predominantly black, Level 1+ top performing neighborhood school. Part of the alderman’s rationale to do so was based on him claiming that most of the kids at the school were not within our neighborhood boundaries. This was not true and of course was the result of other forms of racism, mainly the fact that black people living in diverse middle class neighborhoods are still often seen as not living or belonging there. Nevertheless, a major part of the rationale was that most of these kids aren’t from our neighborhood, so we don’t need to keep this school opened. I have come to realize that although CPS has a program where families submit their names to have their children considered for schools outside of their neighborhood, many school officials and community members look negatively upon and may often treat these kids differently because ultimately they feel they don’t belong there.
3) Racism is often operationalized through grace, empathy or the benefit of the doubt not being extended to black and brown people the same way it is to our white counterparts. Not being extended grace or given the benefit of the doubt is in so many instances a driving force behind racist actions that takes place. Individuals at an unconscious level will make negative assumptions about people of color based on racist tropes and then utilize those negative assumptions in their decision making processes. When we were discussing this in my moms group with women who are white, it was evident to me that many were jumping to negative assumptions. Although most agreed DCFS should not have been called, there was still a lot of blame being placed on the mother and even some not fully believing her story. In the group discussion, this is illustrated perfectly by comments such as: “No one should have to call her to get her kid.” and “Why didn’t she make plans ahead of time?”.
4) Racism means that black people’s experiences are usually not believed until white people confirm their experience or until there is corroborating evidence. As this discussion was taking place in my mom’s group, there was someone who said, “I would want to hear the administrator’s side of the story.” Another person said, “I doubt this has to do with race”. How often have we heard this? Let’s not rush to judgment. Let’s wait and see what actually happened. This most frequently occurs when the person of color is the victim. In contrast, myself and other black mothers in the group instinctively knew that race was a factor in this equation. This is because we have to live, breathe and navigate such situations on a daily basis. Subsequently, it was critical that the Local School Council (LSC) came out with the information and the petition as they did, if this mother were to stand a chance at all of being believed and were to receive any type of justice. Inevitably, in the write up and the petition by the LSC, several white parents indicated that although they have been late to pick up their kids, that they have never had DCFS called on them.
5) Racism manifests in systems that exclude and subsequently disenfranchise, whether intentionally or unintentionally black and brown people. According to this mother’s story, her son usually takes the bus. However, there was a miscommunication and she did not realize until later that afternoon that her son would not be brought home by the bus. Decisions to not run the bus will only affect those who live further away or who don’t have a nanny at their disposal for example. This mother was also a teacher and when she found out this was the situation, she tried to reach her brother but he was unavailable to assist. So, I am sure this mother who did not know and so had not planned ahead of time to pick up her son had to calculate quickly how she should do this. Now most people may say, well why didn’t she just leave immediately? Well let me ask you, should she leave in the middle of teaching a class? How could she do that? She would face the consequences at work. Well, there have been instances where I have been in very important meetings and I would not dare leave early even though I know I will be rushing to pick up my kids from school. She, like I, am sure did the best with what her options were at the time.
6) Racism can often manifest itself with people (often white) in positions of power getting upset and using their power to retaliate when people of color react to their disrespect or counter their narratives. If you didn’t guess, this principal is a white woman who chose in her position of power to call DCFS when she did not like the mother’s response to her email. The principal in her original email to the mother after the mother picked up the child, according to a string of tweets, had threatened to call DCFS for the purposes of neglect. She had not called the same day because the child had not been picked up as yet. She called because the mother had responded strongly to her threatening email. Something that any parent would do. Here’s a reality, black people especially black women are often talked down to, belittled and even verbally abused by people in positions of power. Often, many will chose not to respond for fear of racism, that is discrimination coupled with power. Whether it’s in the classroom, or an encounter with a police officer, black people have been conditioned and know oh too well that responding will be very costly. This is a perfect illustration of this. The parent responded, choosing not to stand down and now she is suffering the consequences.
7) Racism can manifest itself through white people in positions of power instituting and weaponizing policies at their discretion that often will negatively impact people of color. Institutionalized racism manifests itself through people implementing their way of seeing the world, which because of the effects of colonization is based on a European worldview. These policies and procedures then penalize people who see the world differently than those implementing the policy. A policy was implemented that this school had the right to call DCFS after 4:30 if a parent didn’t show up. Of course, the policy also included that the administrator would attempt to call the parent and the emergency contacts. However none of this was done. Coincidence? I think not. Ultimately, the principal, a person in the position of power chose to weaponize this policy when she saw fit in this way knowing very well that it would negatively impact this parent.
8) The impact to the victim of the racism should always be what is most important. I often hear others say that they didn’t intend to cause harm and so often because their intentions didn’t intend to do cause harm, they believe they shouldn’t be held culpable for the consequences of their actions. If we hit another car whether or not it was intentional, we still have to cover the damages for the car we hit. Whether it’s through insurance or other means, the unintentional accident and the damage it caused is still our fault and our responsibility. We need to look at racism in the same way. It’s not about what a person was hoping or trying to do. It’s about the harm and consequences that resulted from those actions. It’s only when we start truly thinking through the implications of our actions to the very end that we will begin to see true change. To not take responsibility or not attempt to right the wrong when we cause harm is the easy way out and will never get us anywhere. So, let’s think this situation through for example, DCFS was called, the child was traumatized by being pulled out of his class and being forced to interact with the system, the mother could potentially lose her job, or will have to miss time from work, and will be also traumatized. Beyond that, the child may never feel safe at school again and his education has been disrupted. Were these impacts even considered in creating the policy or factored into the principal’s decision to call? I highly doubt it. Often times, what we will hear utilized instead is that the person is responsible and these are the consequences for their actions.
9) When racism occurs, victim blaming is not allowed. Victim blaming is always the go to in most instances of racism. From statements such as “well what was he doing that he was killed?”, to instances I have heard in this case such as: “she should have known better, or planned better”. Essentially, when we have determined the actions and the outcomes are racist, we should stop right there. What that means ultimately, is that likely a white person in this exact same situation would not have experienced the same consequences. So please stop victim blaming. I know in reality it’s hard to wrap our brains around the fact that these things that aren’t fair and just in this world happen to people of color without anything they did. But yes, they indeed do and we must begin to recognize and acknowledge this. In systems that are racist, we cannot blame the victim, because the victim regardless of their actions will always be impacted negatively.
10) Underlying racism are Eurocentric values that are institutionalized through policies and then weaponized against people of color. What do I mean by this? We discuss being anti-racist and I think often we don’t fully understand what that means. Being anti-racist means really examining and deconstructing everything that has gotten us as a society to this place. To do that we have to peel away layer by layer. As we peel away layers, we see that many of the policies we have in this country are based on European philosophies. So let’s take for instance this policy about calling DCFS if a parent shows up late. What’s underlying this policy? Essentially, American culture based on Eurocentric views has a monochronic approach to time. This means that time is prioritized and centered over all else, often even relationships. This philosophical view is then institutionalized through policies and is manifested in for example, penalties for students who maybe late to class or in this instance something much more devastating, where being late can be considered neglect and can have the authorities called. As someone who grew up in the Caribbean but also has traveled throughout the world to places in Africa, Asia, South America and the Middle East, I can tell you that without a doubt in most places around the world, time is not seen as sacred as it is in the United States. Time is viewed as polychronic and not as heavily prioritized. So for example, someone showing up late does not ever constitute lack of respect. In fact, in most places, showing up late is built into the culture and that is often because value systems are different, so for example, people will value relationships and completing tasks over adhering to time. In this instance then, I hope you can see how the Eurocentric value of time has been institutionalized as a policy and then weaponized.
11) These same institutional policies often traumatize, disenfranchise and devastate people’s lives. According to reports, Illinois DCFS came to the school the next day to question the student then following that came to the mother’s home. Now the young boy is scared that he will be taken away from his mother. In addition, how will he ever feel comfortable learning at that school again. In essence, he has been traumatized. He will not feel safe and not feeling safe causes the sympathetic nervous system to kick in with the fight, flight or freeze syndrome which will reduce his ability to focus or function. This little boy inevitably will have to work very hard to overcome the trauma that he has experienced. In addition to that, his education will most likely be disrupted and his grades may take a plunge. Now let’s talk about mom. Now, mom would have this on her record, so what does this mean for her as a teacher if she wants to ever change jobs or move up? What does it mean if she wanted to for example, foster a child or if another incident were to happen and DCFS were called again then the system would be quick to say there is this pattern of neglect and could potentially even consider removing the child from the home. How egregious would that be?
12) Privilege is blinding and reduces the capacity for empathy. The mere concept of privilege means we don’t have to experience many of these difficult situations. This is because either based on our standing in life or other factors, we have the resources and protection that insulates us from such unfortunate circumstances. Or, even if we were in the exact same situation, because of what we look like, we would be believed, given the benefit of the doubt and not treated the same way. In my group, people said, “Why didn’t the mother plan better? Why didn’t she have someone else pick the kid up?” Now on the surface such questions make sense, but as an immigrant to this country with very little family here, I recall the days of racing from downtown to get my sons at school on time. We are not fully aware of the mother’s circumstances or support structures and just because many people have the luxury of having resources in people or money, many people do not and so they have to figure it all out by themselves. Therefore, if you are privileged, the first thing in situations like these you should say is let me put myself in this mother’s shoes, believing she has the best interest of her son at heart and recognizing that we are in the midst of a pandemic.
13) Racism often means that there are no consequences for the racist. The reality is that racism continues to be perpetuated because it is intricately interwoven to every fabric of our society. It is done so in a way that there are no ramifications or consequences to the perpetrator. This then leads to the continued perpetuation of racism. Unless, people in charge of systems and people making policies are held accountable, this will never change. Ultimately, people of color have learned not to expect justice in most situations. Of recent, however, the only hope for any justice has been through public and media attention. It is only then, that any justice for actions such as these have a remote chance of occurring.
14) White allies are integral but need to keep their biases at the forefront. Given that white people hold the power and are believed. White allies are needed as allies until that dynamic can change. In this instance, white people stepped up to say we have experienced similar situations and nothing has happened to us. They are also standing on the side of the parent and this is what I know has allowed this story to get as much traction as it has. Ultimately, white allies are needed because only white people can truly help to take down the system they invented. However, even as you are a white ally, please always keep your biases and judgments to the forefront. In nuanced circumstances, they often rise up. I witnessed this again in the dynamics of the conversations within my mom’s group. I knew many moms were allies but they were struggling to understand and empathize with this mother without being biased and victim blaming.
If you take away anything from these 14 lessons, my hope is that you will learn how to start truly understanding and thinking about how racism is interwoven in the fabric of our society. It is evident that most often, unless racism is blatant or with neon flashing lights, racism goes overlooked or is dismissed. It is also clear that many people miss making all of the connections that exist and all of the implicating factors of racism. It is therefore imperative that we start to really break down how racism is manifested and how it affects people if there will ever be any hope of making change.
We have to assume that racism exists everywhere because its in our DNA, then we will not be shocked or will not question the validity of whether or not an incident is racist every time it rears it’s ugly head. If the rain is falling and we are outside, we will inevitably get wet. It’s the same with racism. A person does not have to be intentionally trying to be racist, to commit a racist act. It happens because of the structures that exist. Therefore, it is only when we change our view to recognize that being raised in a racist culture with racist systems will inevitably lead to behavior and actions of which the end result will be racism, will we no longer be stuck in history repeating itself and the same cycles over and over.
To truly be anti-racist and to make progress on issues of racism, we have to start to review every system, every policy, every law and every procedure that exists from an equity lens, looking at who benefits and who is disenfranchised. If we do not do this, we will always be reactive and will be playing a game of whac-a-mole with racism. It is only then will we see racism begin to be dismantled. So ultimately if you consider yourself anti-racist or an ally you have to work feverishly, as though your life depended on it to dismantle racism, because for people of color, their lives and their everything do depend on this dismantling.
Link to the LSC document and petition: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1Mj8g6qTt15aWFTKs5sI-JmU7uUrofN3F9XOBmDW16-g/viewform?edit_requested=true&fbclid=IwAR26D87zsDlSPQvT0piFT0pO-RxiWckzNsRDR7QkLcSWvbwYrNEfuy2SYM8
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